Israel’s leaders vowed last week that Operation Protective Edge would deal Hamas a lethal blow. Instead, it has achieved the opposite effect. The continued pounding of Gaza by Israeli warplanes looking to cripple Hamas's ability to launch rockets against Israeli population centers — which has also destroyed large segments of Gaza’s fragile civilian infrastructure and claimed close to 200 lives — has breathed new life into the Islamist movement by restoring its preferred role at the forefront of Palestinian resistance to Israel. In doing so, however, Israel may simply have entrenched the status quo for the long term.
Hamas made clear in statements at the outset of the current exchange of fire that while it was ready to escalate if Israel did, it preferred to avoid a renewed military confrontation with Israel at the present moment. Hamas had suffered a series of crippling setbacks over the past year, in concert with those suffered across the region by its Muslim Brotherhood allies. Last summer’s coup in which Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi was deposed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi saw Cairo instantly transformed from an allied regional power back into one of Hamas’ most aggressive regional antagonists.
As a result, the economic lifelines that connected the Hamas-ruled territory to the outside world — the myriad tunnels leading from Egyptian-controlled Sinai into Gaza — were systematically destroyed, as Cairo painted Hamas as a terrorist offshoot of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. And Hamas’ ability to govern Gaza had been crippled by a drying up of funds from its principal regional benefactor, Qatar.
By late April of 2014, in fact, the Hamas leadership had recognized the gravity of its predicament, and agreed to a reconciliation agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization on terms that were hardly favorable to the Islamists. The reconciliation agreement, which would have ended years of bitter infighting with Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and presented a chance for Hamas to unify its own leadership, was opposed by Israel but accepted by the international community (including the U.S.). It offered Hamas a lifeline out of its political crisis, but in exchange for renouncing its right to govern Gaza separately from the PA, and joining the PLO. The PLO has renounced violence and negotiates with Israel, meaning that the road of reconciliation would require a radical reformulation of Hamas’ guiding principles.
But even as the appointment of a government of technocrats acceptable to both parties marked the beginning of an historic Palestinian reconciliation, a fresh cycle of violence swept through the West Bank. In June, three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered as they were hitchhiking to an Israeli settlement, prompting Israel to launch a wide scale military sweep against Hamas in the West Bank.
Israeli forces arrested more than 300 Hamas operatives, and took control of a number of its arms caches in the West Bank. Hamas, for its part, never claimed responsibility for the murder of the Israeli teens, and warned that the levels of incitement taking hold in both societies could spiral out of control — which they soon did.
The revenge killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem sparked mass protests that engulfed the West Bank. Within days, Israeli warplanes began striking Hamas targets throughout Gaza. Just weeks after agreeing in principle to cede political control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas once again found itself bearing the brunt of an Israeli military assault.
But far from removing the totality of Hamas’s rocket-launching capability, Operation Protective Edge has renewed Hamas’ claim to be the premier group resisting Israel. (The Palestinian Authority security forces had been widely derided in the West Bank for standing by — and even suppressing protests — during Israel’s recent crackdown there that killed at least five Palestinians.)
Whatever else it has achieved, Israel’s offensive appears to have blocked the creation of a Palestinian unity government that would restore the PA in Gaza. Instead, it has restored the familiar division of the Palestinian Authority polity between Hamas control in Gaza and Fatah control of the West Bank.
The prospective Egyptian-brokered cease-fire — which remains the likely short-term outcome despite the failure to take hold on Tuesday — will return the situation back to the status quo that has existed since the end of Operation Cast Lead in early 2009.
Life under this cease-fire, like in the previous ones since 2009, will be hard for Gazans. Israel's siege of the coastal enclave will show no signs of easing while Hamas will likely be called upon to police any and all radical groups that threaten to destabilize the status quo. The fate of Gaza's 1.7 million residents will barely register in ongoing conversations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States.
Given the rapid Israeli embrace of Egypt’s cease-fire proposal and Hamas’ claim that it was not consulted on the truce terms, Egypt appears willing to restore the status quo of Gaza administered by an economically isolated and militarily contained Hamas. Where Morsi had energetically encouraged Palestinian reconciliation, Cairo today shows little interest in uniting the Palestinians.
Events largely beyond its choosing have thrust Hamas back onto center stage after suffering near total collapse over the previous year. And in its response to the Israeli offensive and the cease-fire proposals, the movement is once again waging a battle with Egypt to open its borders with Gaza. By demurring on the Egyptians’ initial truce offer, the Hamas leadership is showing its willingness to continue fighting and possibly calling Israel’s bluff on the threat of a ground invasion — which Israel would clearly prefer to avoid — in order to press Egypt to include an end to the economic siege of Gaza in the cease-fire terms.
For the Israeli leadership, the Gaza operation fits with an increasingly openly-stated view that the conflict with the Palestinians can only be managed, not resolved via the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday.
The message to the international community from Israel’s leaders is unequivocal: The occupation cannot and will not be ended; Hamas will administer Gaza and the Palestinian Authority will administer the West Bank, both under the shadow of Israeli security control. Talk of a two-state solution in any meaningful sense remains illusory; the status quo will be enforced, by military force if necessary, for the foreseeable future.
Israel seeks calm on its Gaza frontier, but Netanyahu has made clear that peace is another matter.